Socially engaged archaeology course challenges students to look to the past to better understand the present

Author: Joanna Byrne

D'Room to Breathe' exhibition at the Migration Museum

As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, Carter Collins didn’t think that one of his courses would involve visiting an ethnically diverse food market nearly 4000 miles away in the heart of London.

Thanks to a new course created by London Global Gateway faculty Fay Stevens, Collins and his fellow students are examining the role social archeology plays in the construction of cultural identities in different areas of London.

”Having class in different locations has allowed me to explore parts of London that I would not have otherwise visited,” says Collins.

Stevens developed this course to be a collaborative pedagogy, and this semester is in collaboration with the Migration Museum, an organization that tells the stories of movement to Britain in innovative and engaging ways. The current exhibition, “Room to Breathe”, spans several rooms of a house and even a barbershop, inviting you to discover the stories of migrants to the UK through their personal experiences, brought to life by possessions, objects, audio and film.

Taking inspiration from the fragments of daily life woven through the exhibition, students develop their own specific research area, focusing on topics such as the role of hair in migrant cultures, education, the Windrush generation, and how food affects and is affected by migration.  

“Our semester long project topic was chosen by the us, the students,” says Collins. “We have therefore been able to learn about areas and create meaningful work on subjects that are of interest to us.”

HStudents listening to migrants' stories at the Migration Museum

The course is not lecture based, and instead involves direct interaction with contemporary community groups and individuals, and visits to culturally specific sites and museums. The objective of the course is for students to understand more about the construction of certain histories, who owns the past, and the role museums can play in shaping history.

Stevens hopes that by reflecting on various events in the past such as migration, students will a have more informed idea of the present, enabling them to make a positive impact on the future.

Students will have understood how communities contribute to social histories within London,” says Stevens. “Moreover, they will be skilled in drawing connections as well as critical reflection on wider influence and implications.”

The course is funded by the Center for Social Concerns, as part of its commitment to  support community-based learning. The Center strives to give students the opportunity to community beyond their campus, whether that is in South Bend or any of the gateways and centers across the globe. Rosie McDowell, the director of International Community-Based Learning Outreach for the Center for Social Concerns, worked closely with Stevens on the development of this course and believes that classes like these are incredibly beneficial to students.  

"The Center for Social Concerns advances student learning about social justice issues through engagement with local communities who are essential partners in promoting that learning," states McDowell. "Stevens' course is an excellent example of this."

BStudents in a workshop session at the Migration Museum

Studying this course in London is eye-opening for the students, who have an abundance of source material at their fingertips. They can explore issues of heritage, identity and belonging by engaging with individuals who have come from different backgrounds and cultures. The city is melting-pot of different histories, identities and stories, creating a plethora of cultural artifacts which student can use to discover more about London’s history.

"Stevens' partnership with the Migration Museum allows students an opportunity to develop meaningful projects with the museum staff and community in order understand more deeply stories of migration while learning about the challenges and nuances of telling those stories in a museum setting," says McDowell. "In this way they become scholars who are informed by principles of the human dignity and solidarity found in Catholic social tradition, and the goal is that they carry this sensibility forward wherever they go in the world." 

This semester, students are working in small groups on their own area of research, and will present their findings at a conference on Friday 5 April at the London Global Gateway. The conference is open to all, and will be the outcome of innovative and thought-provoking research.

Register now